Merry Christmas, Verlaine! I hope this little story is enjoyable.
First Time Ever
The snow was an ugly slush, like someone had dumped gallons of gray paint in it and stirred the whole mess with a giant spoon. The snow at home was white and powdery so he wasn't sure he liked this. But it was fun being in New York. This was the first vacation his family had ever taken this far away from Minnesota. It was supposed to be the Christmas present for the whole family, but he wasn’t sure this qualified. So far they'd been to the Statue of Liberty, the United Nations Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building. All of those things were neat, but they were just places to look at. He was getting restless for something to do.
“Mom,” Kenny Hutchinson turned away from their fortieth story window, with its miniature view of the world, and looked at his mother who was fixing her hair, “can we do something today?”
“We've been doing things, Kenny. Aren't you having a good time?”
“Yeah, sure, but you know....”
“No, I don't. What is it that you want to do?”
“Ride the subway?” he asked tentatively. He'd heard his parents speak of this dangerous means of transportation where a person could get lost, maybe forever, and might even get robbed. The stories scared him, but excited him, too.
The words were a very adamant adult refusal, and he knew it wouldn't do any good to argue. He shrugged and went back to staring out the window imagining a band of robbers demanding all his money or his life. He'd pretend to go along with them, then at the last minute grab a gun from one of them and capture them for the police.
“Let's go, Kenny. Your father and sister are waiting for us.”
He heaved a sigh, left the window and his daydreams, and followed his mother to the elevator.
Later that day, as he followed his parents and the other visitors through the New York Museum of Modern Art, bored and tired, his mind fled back to this morning's thoughts. Maybe the subway wasn't as bad a place as everyone said. Millions of people rode it every day—he'd read that in his father's First Time Visitor's Guide to New York City. And he wouldn't get lost. He had a great sense of direction; his grandfather said he was a regular homing pigeon.
He suddenly noticed that the people around him were not the strangers he'd been standing among. The tour group that his parents were with seemed to have moved on without him. He'd better catch up fast or he was going to be in trouble—his father didn't tolerate inattention. But after ten minutes of searching, he still hadn't found them, and no one had come looking for him. He knew what he was supposed to do: go to the front entrance and wait. So, not really interested in catching up with the others anyway, he made his way to the information desk. But after standing there for twenty minutes, he began to wonder if maybe everyone had already left. The light coming through the great glass doors was fading—it would be night soon. Maybe he should just go back to the hotel. Maybe his parents expected that of him. After all, he was ten years old, big enough to take care of himself. And he had the money for a taxi—his father always made sure everyone in the family carried what he called “mad money” for emergencies.
The streets were very crowded with cars and trucks and what seemed like millions of people walking. He had trouble standing at the curb to hail a cab without being pushed into traffic. Twice he was swept along with a particularly large crowd of people. No one seemed to notice a lanky blond kid in their way.
A third crush of people forced him across an intersection to a tunnel-like doorway. An escalator that seemed to go down forever was in front of him, and he found himself pressed between two very large ladies on his way to the bottom.
A subway. This must be one of those. A huge waiting room like the one at La Guardia Airport was full of angry looking people. That was something he’d noticed about New York. Everyone seemed to look mad all the time. He wondered why.
Lots of people in front of him were putting money in little boxes and then going through turn styles like the one at the Super One Foods in Duluth. He fumbled a handful of change from his pocket, and tried to watch what the woman in front of him put in the box. A dime. He could manage that. He put a coin into the box and pushed his way through the gate.
He couldn’t see over all the people, but in a few minutes he heard and felt a deep rumble that grew steadily louder, almost drowning out the noise of the talking people.
Suddenly he was pushed forward, as the crowd surged into the waiting train. Packed like a sardine in an overcrowded tin, he struggled to breathe. The smell was terrible—sort of like his grandfather’s barn when it rained.
As the train started forward he was thrown into the back of a man, who grabbed his hip pocket and glared at him over his shoulder.
“Sorry,” he muttered and moved away a fraction of an inch. He couldn’t get any farther.
The subway stopped and started several times, but he could never get to the door fast enough to get out before another crush of people entered. Just when he was beginning to think the stories of being stuck on one of these trains forever weren’t exaggerations and how could anyone ever get robbed here—the bad guy wouldn’t have room to pull a gun—the train stopped again, and he was forced off just as he’d been pushed on.
Another waiting room, much smaller and dirtier than the first, quickly emptied of people. He looked around at the few remaining ones, mostly old men with beard stubble on their faces, and decided to ride the escalator to the outside. Maybe he’d have better luck finding a taxi here where there didn’t seem to be so many people.
It was full dark when he emerged onto the sidewalk. There were still a lot of pedestrians about, but they looked different from the ones on the train. Most of them were young men in leather jackets and jeans, with their dark hair slicked back. And there weren’t nearly as many cars. The ones there were were old and battered. He didn’t see one cab.
There weren’t many stores, either, just three and four story buildings that were probably apartments. There were lights in a lot of the windows, but these windows weren’t decorated for Christmas like the windows of the stores he’d seen, and the smell of something cooking suddenly made him realize that he was hungry.
Some of the passersby looked at him strangely, which made him feel embarrassed. If he could find a pay phone, maybe he could call a taxi like his Aunt Belle did at home when she wanted to go shopping.
He started walking, hoping to find a shopping area, but there were just more apartment buildings. Maybe he should have gone the other way, so he turned to retrace his steps.
Suddenly a group of older boys stepped out of the shadows to stand in front of him. Most of them were about fourteen, he guessed, but a couple looked older. One of the older ones took a few steps toward him, smiling. It didn’t look like a very friendly smile. Somewhere from the back of his mind he remembered Joey Lipton talking about gangs in New York and how they all carried knives and chains and beat up on anyone who wasn’t a member of their group. A lump of fear settled in his stomach.
“Whatcha doin’ here, blondie? This is Red Dragon territory. We don’t like strangers.”
“Uh...well, I...I....” He looked at the other boys, hoping to find a sympathetic face in the group. All of the eyes stared back at him, hard and cold.
“Well, I asked ya a question, pretty boy. Ya gonna answer, or do I have to get my lieutenants here to help ya?”
Terror turned his blood to ice water. Why had he ever left the museum? Boy, was his father going to be mad at him.
“Frankie, Chip, help him out,” the seeming leader ordered.
Two guys, meaner looking than the others, started toward him. He wanted to run, but knew they’d catch him. Maybe they were going to kill him. For an instant, he pictured himself lying on the sidewalk, bleeding to death. He glanced around wildly, seeking help, but the grown-ups who passed didn’t even look at him. New York really was a terrible place.
“I’m just visiting,” he blurted out, backing up a few steps, “with my mother and father.”
“Isn’t that nice, boys? The leader smiled at his gang, then turned back to him. “A visitor. Well, let us show ya around. Ya’d like that, wouldn’t ya, blondie? There’s a real nice alley down the street here.”
The two lieutenants were in front of him now and grabbed his arms, marching him off down the sidewalk. Oh, God, don’t let me cry, he prayed, feeling the tears well in his eyes. John Wayne didn’t cry, no matter how badly he was hurt. He blinked furiously and set his face in what he hoped was an expression of courage.
The alley was completely dark except for a few patches of light from unshaded windows here and there along its length. The hands on his arms hurt a lot.
Running footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned his head to see another boy hurrying toward the others— someone else to join in on the fun. He felt sick to his stomach. Please, don’t let me throw up—this new fear making him forget the incipient tears.
“Hey, Mike, whatcha doin’?” the breathless new boy asked as he raced up.
“Showin’ a new kid around town.”
The newcomer was in front of him now, and as he turned to look at him, Kenny saw he was just a kid like him, maybe even younger. The kids got mean young in New York.
“Go home, Davey,” the leader continued in a mocking voice. “Your ma’s probably lookin’ for ya,”
A frown passed over Davey’s face, drawing his dark eyebrows together and giving him a look of danger. “Whatcha doin’ to my cousin, Mike?” the kid asked, walking up to him. “My dad’s gonna be lookin’ for ya, if ya hurt ‘im.”
Surprise stopped the automatic denial that leaped to Kenny’s throat. And then a warm rush of gratefulness swept through him as he realized what the boy was trying to do. He forced a smile and met the dark eyes of his savior. “Boy, am I glad you got here, Davey. I told them I was visiting you, but they wouldn’t believe me.”
A brief flash of admiration for the quick elaboration of his lie showed on the other boy’s face.
“Ya never said ya was stayin’ at the Starsky’s,” Mike growled.
“He’s not,” Davey supplied hastily. “At a hotel downtown. They’re lookin’ for a place to live.” Then to Kenny, ‘Why’d ya go out by yourself? I told ya I’d go with ya later.”
“I got tired of waiting,” he answered, feeling elation sweep through him when the two older boys let go of his arms. This guy was terrific! It was just like they’d planned the whole thing ahead of time. None of the guys at home could think that fast.
“Mom’s worried about ya, bein’ new here. Said if I saw ya to tell ya to get back right now. Your mom and dad are gettin’ ready to go back to the hotel.”
All the time he talked he walked, pushing Kenny ahead of him.
“Hey!” Mike called. “Ya gonna move in this territory, ya better watch out an’ answer when a Red Dragon talks to ya.”
“Whatcha mean, Mike?” Davey answered without stopping. “He’s gonna be a Dragon same as us. He’s a real good fighter.” Under his breath he added, “Ya stupid or somethin’? Say somethin’.”
“Yeah,” he called over his shoulder, “Davey already told me about you guys. I can’t wait.”
“We got business to talk, Davey. Ya gonna walk your little cousin home or ya gonna stay here with your friends?” Mike’s voice was a jeering taunt.
“He don’t know the way. I’ll be back soon as I point out the building.”
They were at the end of the alley now, and his rescuer shoved him out of the entrance so the others couldn’t see them.
“Thanks,” he began, breathing out a huge sigh of relief. “I thought I was a goner.”
“Yeah, well, you’re still not in the clear. Come on.”
He hurried to catch up to the quick moving boy. “Where’re we going?”
“The subway. Ya gotta get outta the neighborhood. Where ya from?”
“No, dummy. Here in New York. Where ya stayin’?” The deep set eyes flashed on him, impatient and exasperated. A streetlight shone in them, and he saw that they were a dark blue, not brown like he’d thought.
“Oh,” he answered sheepishly. “The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.”
“Holy shit! How’d ya get all the way out here?”
“It was a mistake. I was trying to get back to the hotel from the museum.”
“Museum! What were ya doin’ there?” Disgust showed plainly on the street-tough face.
“My parents made me go.”
“Oh.” The one word expressed immediate understanding of parents and their incomprehensible ways.
“My name’s Kenny...Ken,” he amended hastily. “Ken Hutchinson.”
They rode the escalator to the bottom. The same old men—or at least they looked like the same ones—were still there. They paid no attention to the boys.
“Come on. The next train’ll be here in a coupla minutes.”
They paid their dimes and went through the turn style.
“Why are you going, too? I can get back by myself.” A little niggle of resentment tugged at him—he was grateful for his timely rescue, but didn’t like the idea of being babied.
“No ya can’t ,” Davey stated matter of factly. “There’s no through train this time of night, and you’d never make the right transfers.”
“You could tell me,” Kenny protested, more from appearance sake than because of confidence. If truth were told, he was glad Davey wasn’t going to leave him on his own.
The train arrived and they boarded it. There were only four other people in the car so they could sit down. Litter covered the floor and all kinds of spray painted graffiti marred the dirty walls. The smell was the same as he remembered.
The ride took quite a while, and the whole time they talked. He told Davey about Duluth and Minnesota winters, skiing, skating, and all the things he and his friends did for fun. Davey told him about his life, how his dad was a cop, that he had a little brother who was a brat, and how when he was grown he was going to be a cop, too. It sounded like a great idea, and by the time they reached the station closest to the Plaza, Kenny had decided he, too, would be a cop.
They got off the train and rode the escalator to the top. A feeling of gloom settled on him as he caught sight of the hotel sign. His footsteps slowed and then stopped.
“Whatsa matter?” Davey asked, stopping too.
“My parents are gonna kill me. They’ve probably got half the city out looking for me,”
“Nah. It ain’t been twenty-four hours. That’s how long ya gotta wait before you can report a missin’ person.”
“Really?” His thoughts brightened a bit.
“Yeah. But you’re right. They’re still gonna kill ya.”
“Yeah..” A happy thought entered his mind. “Hey, why don’t you come up with me? Maybe they won’t get so mad if you’re there.”
“Uh-uh, I gotta get hack.” A shadow of apprehension crossed his new friend’s face. “You know how mother’s worry,” he explained.
“Won’t she just think you’re out with the Red Dragons?”
“Well, ya see, she...that is...she don’t exactly know about them.”
“You mean you just left your house without telling her?” He thought about the enormity of this kind of defiance. He’d gotten lost, which was bad enough. But to deliberately go out without permission....
“Sort of. Well, I gotta go. Don’t be takin’ anymore subway rides.” Davey turned away, moving quickly back down the sidewalk.
“Hey!” Kenny shouted, running after him.
Davey stopped and turned, impatient.
“Maybe we could write or something. Next time I come here we could get together, or,” a brilliant idea occurred to him, “you could come visit me in Duluth.”
The dark blue eyes suddenly looked at him like a much older person, and he felt a little nervous....
“Ya mean that?”
“Sure. We’d have lots of fun. Maybe when we’re grown up we could be cops together.”
“Yeah.” Davey grinned then, a slightly crooked cant to the right giving him a somewhat rakish air. “Okay. Ya got somethin’ to write with?”
Kenny fished a small pencil from his jacket pocket and a brochure from the museum. He wrote down his own address, tore off the paper, and handed it to his new friend. Then he wrote down the address Davey gave him and stuck it in his pocket.
They stood for a few moments in awkward silence before Davey punched his arm and ran off, calling, “Be seein’ ya!” over his shoulder.
“Right,” he called back and watched until the small figure disappeared down the subway entrance. Then he turned his feet toward the hotel. He’d be lucky if all he got was a lecture, but even the prospect of a real spanking didn’t completely dampen his good spirits.
David Starsky and Kenneth Hutchinson. One of these days when they were grown they’d be the best cops in the world and best friends. He grinned to himself and then frowned. Maybe he could tell his dad that he’d been kidnapped. He’d been tied up for hours, but when they let him loose to eat dinner, he’d grabbed the gun and....